‘All unhappy towns in Russia are alike’

Geographer Maria Gunko about a crisis of cities that don’t have an accurate definition, local tourism and grassroots’ initiatives

‘All unhappy towns in Russia are alike’
Photo: newsko.ru

“There is no average Russian disorder and decay in the towns. If we look at an all-Russian comparison of small cities, towns in Tatarstan will be better in many indicators. Only two cities of the region — Chistopol and Bugulma — lose their population, both reduced in 1989-2019, but not catastrophically, by less than 10%, notes geographer and urbanist Maria Gunko. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, she explained how small Russian cities looked for their ways of getting out of a crisis they have been in after the dissolution of the USSR and suspension of public funding of unprofitable enterprises

90% of towns lose their population”

Maria, what a city can be considered small?

Russia doesn’t have accurate national criteria for number and density of the population to say that it is a city. There were some criteria in the Soviet era: from 12,000 people, 80% of them don’t work in agriculture. But this referred to new cities only because if the existing city had less than 12,000 citizens, it wasn’t divested of the status.

Moreover, nowadays legislation that regulates regional politics in Russia doesn’t have the concept of “city” per se, there are urban districts and settlements. This is why today a city (an urban district or urban settlement) is what is called a city. There is no clear logic why this is so, it is what we have.

Small cities are also a relative category. Cities with less than 50,000 people are usually considered in Russia to fit this category.

Do they still lose the population?

There are other 800 small and medium cities in Russia (up to 100,000 people), small cities alone total over 700. 90% of them lose their population. Natural decline and migration outflow are the reasons. Small cities are rarely attractive for migration. As a rule, more active and younger people leave them, of course. And they not only leave, they will also give birth in another place. So the outflow of the youth makes the population older. This is why at a certain point the decrease in the population of cities happens due to natural reasons, that’s to say, the exceedance of mortality over natality.

Photo: culture.ru
Russia doesn’t have accurate national criteria for number and density of the population to say that it is a city

“A long-term lack of funding of infrastructure and dependence of the urban economy on the industry planted a bomb”

You write in one of your works: “Cities are looking for their way of getting out of the structural crisis”. What a crisis is it? Why do towns have to look for their way?

The 1930-1950s were a time of accelerated urbanisation, which, so to speak, was a side effect of the industrialisation. Existing cities grew, new cities appeared, including where there hadn’t been any constant settlements before — in the north and east of the country. As urbanist Denis Vizgalov wrote: “Cities were considered as parts of the national industrial corporation”. And this applies not only to monotowns. All Russian cities, both new and old, had industrial capacities.

Moreover, small cities in the Soviet era weren’t a focus of regional politics. Key investments and key attention were aimed at big and capital cities. Average towns were never rich, so to speak, though there was some support. But in general a long-term lack of funding of infrastructure and dependence of the urban economy on the industry planted a bomb that exploded during the post-Soviet period. The post-Soviet transformation triggered negative processes. We got what many towns, especially remote, northern cities that are uncomfortable for living due to bad infrastructure and severe weather conditions, so either cities or villages became depressive, depopulating territories.

Hasn’t the state’s attitude to towns changed yet?

We don’t have a targeted state policy on support for towns now. There are programmes to support separate types of cities, for instance, monotowns.

In general I think that the phrase “small city” in the post-Soviet state policy was clearly pronounced for the first time because of a programme designed to create a comfortable urban environment in 2017. The topic of towns became “popular” after 2017 — issues of their development in general and different aspects linked with them in particular are often raised. However, there isn’t a holistic approach to support towns that would cover not only beautification — all kinds of parks and benches — but the economy, all the social sphere and environment. But I mean the environment not in its narrowest but widest sense — dwelling, roads, engineering infrastructure. There aren’t such holistic solutions, there are some subsidies, something is patched at every turn.

This is why paraphrasing Tolstoy, all unhappy towns are alike. Their budgets mainly have shortages, everybody lives on subsidies, which aren’t enough for quality changes. Moreover, even those cities that in general have profitable enterprises and where small businesses develop quite well also live on subsidies just because the budget system in Russia works this way: most taxes pass by urban budgets and go to a region or the federation.

Photo: shkolazhizni.ru
We don’t have a targeted state policy on support for towns now. There are programmes to support separate types of cities, for instance, monotowns

Legislation is very complex and sometimes contradictory. It is hard to dramatically get rid of negative tendencies in towns by efforts of these towns. This is often done despite and with high risks for those managers who anyway assume responsibility. First of all, I mean accusation of untargeted use of money. This is why it won’t be honest to severely criticise heads of city administrations. They live in very complicated conditions. They have little money and a lot of responsibility to the population but they have more responsibility to the top management in the current reality. To achieve even small but positive changes, completely different ways are used, and different characters are used in this stories — administrations, businesses, local public self-governments, homeowner associations, museum workers, ethnographers, some active citizens. As there is no general scheme, everybody does one’s best, and we get different stories and results.

“It is cunning to say that tourism is a panacea for all towns

Does tourism potential become a trump card for towns?

I remember famous Natalya Zubarevich say at a lecture during my last year of master’s degree: “If you hear that a city is going to develop tourism it means everything is bad there”. It is a good point in general. Tourism is often considered as the last hope when “traditional” industry, agriculture kicked the bucket. They want to develop it even in those places one can’t get to by deer and dogs. But before speaking about tourism, one should think if the city has money to develop infrastructure — convenient logistics, services (hotels, café and so on) because no matter what natural or cultural sightseeing points there are, if it is hard to get to, if there is no place to stay over and eat, a handful will go there.

So we can talk about sustainable development of tourism in towns if it is easy to get to and if there is normal service. I will put an example. Which city makes pastila?

Belyov…

Yes, everybody knows that. Belyov is a town in Tula Oblast. The Belyov pastila is a federal brand, it is sold everywhere in Moscow. It might seem if the production is so promoted, the town must be good. But Belyov is “to hug and cry”. A corner was dedicated to pastila in an ethnographic museum in 2015 — Soviet posters and cardboard boxes. And one of then two local cafés had a usual menu and a funeral menu (instead of banquette). As for the most frequent events.

In general, it is quite curious that Belyov that is associated with pastila by everyone didn’t manage to turn the success of the brand into the success of the city. Why? Firstly, there wasn’t found a person who could promote the history of pastila (for instance, how Kolomna did), secondly, Belyov’s logistical situation is inconvenient — there isn’t railway, there are few bus routes from the regional capital, Tula. Thirdly, there is nobody and nothing to create tourism infrastructure. And we get a vicious circle: no infrastructure — no tourist — no money — no infrastructure.

Back to Natalya Zubarevich’s phrase, of course, not always towns have ephemeral dreams about tourism. They can be attractive for tourism. But it is cunning to say that tourism is a panacea for all towns. It is a panacea for some towns that already have prerequisites. If we are talking about year-round tourism, it is mainly about logistically convenient towns. Moreover, it can be eventful stories like Art-Ovrag in Vyksa in June or New Year holidays in Veliky Ustyug.

Photo: visittula.com
It is cunning to say that tourism is a panacea for all towns. It is a panacea for some towns that already have prerequisites. If we are talking about year-round tourism, it is mainly about logistically convenient towns

“Our impression was that Tatar villages turned out the most decent and cared


How can you evaluate Tatarstan towns?

Tatarstan is quite a rich region that successfully follows an independent policy and carefully treats its cities. This is why it is a territory of relative well-being of towns. There is no average Russian disorder and decay in the towns. If we look at an all-Russian comparison of small cities, towns in Tatarstan will be better in many indicators.

But accurate numbers can’t be named because statistics in Russia doesn’t show the reality at all. Something can be said about the population only. Only two cities of the region — Chistopol and Bugulma — lose their population, both reduced in 1989-2019, but not catastrophically, by less than 10%. And the average population dynamics in the region’s cities are positive. It means that the towns of the region have good living conditions. Moreover, small cities of Tatarstan now have a lot of environmental projects, federal grants are won to develop the urban environment.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had field research in Tatarstan so far, this is why I can’t tell you some curious stories as an insider. I will put an example of the neighbouring region, Chuvashia, but it is linked with Tatarstan. I went on an expedition across Chuvashia with my research adviser in 2011, we travelled across the region from north to south. We passed by rural settlements with mainly Russian, Tatar and Chuvash residents. Our impression was that Tatar villages turned out the most decent and best-kept. While administrations of towns often complain: “No money, everything is complicated”, I always recall the places where it is worse. We can say about Tatarstan towns as psychotherapy: “Of course, there is always room for improvement. But it is less comfortable to live in almost all the towns of the country”.

By Natalia Antropova